Narrative Influences in Bad Girls
--E. Kline

Helen (to Stubberfield): I have a duty of care to these women.
Nikki (to Helen): When I thought I'd pissed you off I didn't know how I could live.


There are a number of ways to explore the fact that Nikki and Helen often communicate at cross-purposes and express themselves differently, have very different ethical approaches to problems, but such approaches don't examine their story at a narrative level.

Narrowly defined, 'narrative' simply means the story itself, the events which constitute it. I'm aiming at a broader definition here: to consider how the story is told. What is the structure underlying the story of Helen; Helen and Nikki; and to a lesser extent, all those who cross paths with them and effect that primary storyline in series 1-3 of Bad Girls? What kind of story is this? Where does it come from? Does it have antecedents, literary precursors that can help us understand it better, or in other ways?

I. Modern Story Elements

The psychological element is just one component of the Helen/Nikki story: it would be an unusual story these days without major components which could be characterized as 'psychological'. It's the aspect most familiar to a modern audience, and most frequently analyzed—which is also natural given the story's enormous appeal: what did Helen mean when she said this; what was Nikki thinking, etc.

There are other (mainly modern) ways of characterizing the Helen/Nikki story besides psychological (character-study): as a coming-out story, for example; a romance, etc. Bad Girls directly references other literary sources extensively throughout series 1-3, and a thorough analysis would certainly have to take those references into consideration: intertexutal exchanges about works by Dickens, Shakespeare, and Eliot all require close attention. From the first moments of the first episode, Bad Girls mixed presentational genres; but though some elements of Bad Girls are characteristic of the gothic, for example, the show is not itself gothic.

These components are all pieces of the structure, but not the framework. What specific narrative models does the Helen/Nikki story employ? In considering S3 especially, there are many different levels of disconnect between Nikki and Helen. The key is Helen and her internal journey: to me it seems a large part of the narrative regarding this character is basically psychological (concerned with changes in the character's inner life).

A lot of what goes wrong in S3 is that Helen and Nikki aren't reading each other accurately or well. They think they have an Understanding, but many aspects of that understanding are not actually discussed: when things go sideways they can't depend on their assumptions, the cracks start showing. The unspoken communication that's in part drawn them together is, after all, unspoken; some sort of imagined psychic connection alone doesn't carry people through the rough spots. They have to be able to talk to each other—something neither character is expert in, it's definitely a big area they'll need to work on in their life after Larkhall. As I hope to make clear, however, they're not only misreading each other because of poor communication skills.

The problem with the paradigm of coming out is that it is a model: it implies there are certain basic steps that happen in a certain order (and tends to impose those steps on stories concerned with such subject matter, as evidenced by the last 20 years of gay and lesbian cinema). Although there's some truth to the coming-out paradigm and part of Helen's story can be viewed from that angle, Shed, the writers and production company behind Bad Girls, is careful to avoid embracing it as "the" single, overriding theme for the story they're telling: the story of Helen and Nikki is bigger than that, it's about a great deal more.

(Didi Herman has explored some of the ways Helen's story, especially in its resolution, diverges from a more traditional 'coming-out' paradigm in her excellent 'Bad Girls Changed My Life' (see Bibliography for full information), and I agree with her assertion this is one reason Shed scripted Helen's "I want a woman" declaration as they did: it does not conform to the expected progression, as would some variation on 'I love you Nikki' or 'I want to be with you' or 'I'm a lesbian and I can't live without you'—it's Nikki who's the excessive romantic, Nikki who voices such lines throughout. Any of those declarations (in addition to being horribly cliché) would wrap the story up with a bow, too neatly, and diminish its impact on other levels; all evidence (interviews with Shed etc) indicates they were acutely aware of this issue and wrestled with it til they felt they had what they wanted—which was something rather different).

One of the things the paradigm of coming out obscures is that real life doesn't happen (or necessarily feel) in 'order', it's a messy clutter of overlapping emotions and events—and this story's very smart about that as well, which is one of the reasons the presentation around Helen is so fittingly complex in series 3. Helen's got a major overhaul that needs to take place—about how she thinks of herself, how she sees herself in the world; difficult as it might have been for us, the audience, to view and in some places, interpret, that's basically an internal process. It has to take place alone, mainly off-screen—it's true to her story (and her character) that it does.

II. Victorian

...Which is why the Victorian model Shed's writers and producers seem to fall back on in places, especially with the character of Helen Stewart, is so interesting: as used in Bad Girls it's more novelistic than cinematic. It's narrative in essence: it concerns the Inner Life of our principal. (Part of a distinctly modern progression from the kind of novels that came before that era.)[1] 

When Helen approaches Nikki for assistance with schizophrenic inmate Pam Jolly, for example, she's making a number of assumptions; one is that she and Nikki share the same basic goal of trying to better life for women in the prison (which aim she, of necessity, assumes supersedes any personal friction on account of the unclear status of their relationship; and despite that the two often disagree on how to go about meeting that goal in any given situation). Most of all, Helen is acting here very much like a 19th century Victorian heroine: she's going to her partner as helpmeet, with the aim of doing good works. Having a "duty of care to these women" is something Helen takes very seriously.

In using this Victorian background echo to draw more layers to Helen's story, I think Shed was, basically, trying to bring a secondary novel to screen. An imaginary novel: the fascinating thing to me about this idea is that this is a novel that literally doesn't exist. (Just as the story told in Fingersmith, as narrative subversion of traditional heterosexual tropes, was impossible to imagine until Sarah Waters gave it to us. We can appreciate Fingersmith as we're reading it, but we can only stand back and admire its real scope when we've finished.) So here, too. This is hugely ambitious of Shed, in my view—to try to convey a character working through all of these emotions and nuances behind the scenes, as it were, with this particular set of conventions. The Victorian model is another lens through which we may view series 3, another type of narrative underlying certain plot points that makes it resonate.

So if there is an historic narrative model for Helen's journey especially in series 3, I am suggesting that—in places—it has Victorian undertones. But though Nikki reads a lot of Victorian literature, her behavior and character, unlike Helen's, doesn't fit that model in a directly comparable way: I was so used to pairing the two characters I couldn't reconcile that disparity. I began wondering whether part of what's going on mightn't be that Helen and Nikki are carrying on two concurrent narratives—thus the disconnect—in two very different traditions.

When listening to the language I'd always used internally to describe Nikki and her behavior (in considering her best characteristics), I realized there was something very old-fashioned about it: gallant; courtly; knightly. (Or, honorable[2], for a less gender-specific identification.) It seemed possible the tradition associated with Nikki's character was quite a bit older: that of the chivalric romance, courtly love. (Nikki does fall rather short on the jealousy front—however, jealousy is, however ironically, a critical if much-debated feature of this tradition: it fits).

Before continuing it's important to note: I don't think it is solely 'Helen's' narrative that has some roots in Victorian tradition, and I hope to make equally clear I don't believe Nikki's narrative tradition should be paired with or ascribed solely to that of courtly love. In short: I think Shed's text swaps these literary influences for each character according to the needs of the story. And not continuously or consistently throughout. These borrowings are part of the story's foundation, not the whole structure: the whole structure is Shed's original story as told through series 1-3 of Bad Girls, specifically, Nikki and Helen's romance, and Helen's journey, both alone and through that relationship. Features of each of these traditions inform the other: aspects of Helen's story are expressed through the courtly love romance, and aspects of Nikki's story borrow from Victorian origins and imagery.

A unified work of art like series 1-3 of Bad Girls isn't set up with a template where writers say, This character must do thus-and-such because that's the tradition they originate in. That's backwards. They borrow little pieces from different places as it fits, often perhaps not entirely consciously, and only as it serves the story. So this isn't some suit of armor I want to saddle the characters with (people were smaller in the middle ages, I don't think the armor would fit our Nikki anyhow); just background that might help in understanding their story or adding shades of meaning.

III. Courtly Love

Barbara Tuchman, from A Distant Mirror:

"The chivalric love affair moved from worship through declaration of passionate devotion, virtuous rejection by the lady, renewed wooing with oaths of eternal fealty, moans of approaching death from unsatisfied desire, heroic deeds of valor which won the lady's heart by prowess, [very rarely] consummation of the secret love, followed by endless adventures and subterfuges to a tragic denouement.... It remained artificial, a literary convention, a fantasy... more for purposes of discussion than for every day practice." [italics mine]

Could a broad summary of this romance's progression be much more perfect?

To address the question of tragedy first, since this angle is the only one which appears not to fit the series 3 ending: most of us, if we're watching for lesbian storylines at all, have suffered through a long, tedious 'tradition' of just this when it comes to lesbian characters in media. Suicide, murder, madness, obsession, addiction, general misery, ad nauseum. We all know the drill—it's been practically obligatory til the last twenty years or so. Tragedy was more than suggested at the end of series 2/beginning of series 3: it was the set-up for all that followed—and more than one viewer could barely see a way round it; as is the nature of tragedy, some disastrous ending to the couple's future felt almost inevitable. Tragedy, in other words (like the Romeo and Juliet motif the show also plays with) is the problem the story sets itself—then goes about solving. This is lesbian revisioning on a very grand scale.

The artifice of the courtly love romance is, of course, echoed in the fact that we're discussing another fictional story, that of Helen Stewart and Nikki Wade, as viewed through this lens. Shed's achievement was to realize a modern-day, lesbian version of this story, and part of its attraction for viewers surely can be found in the emotional credibility of that vision.

To work with this idea more formally it would be important to distinguish the traditions of courtly narrative as practiced in British idiom (rather than French or German, say); see how, where, in what ways they might apply. It would be necessary to take care not to graft or superimpose extra material onto the show: there's no sense trying to force a centuries-old model onto something if it's not appropriate. This is a very broad idea, it's not going to be a perfect fit to the last detail.[3] 

For example, setting up specific parallels with other, third-party characters feels pushed. I can't see squeezing Thomas in as the Arthur figure, or Fenner as... who, Mordred? Such ideas might appear superficially tempting but in the case of Fenner, arguably his storyline simply doesn't intersect Helen and Nikki's within this particular tradition: his function is much closer to that of a prototypical Victorian villain.[4] I could be mistaken, but see the excerpt from quoted materials following[5] for Ross's very interesting idea about the 'custom of the castle'; it makes for an extremely suggestive tie-in to both Nikki's character—and that of Larkhall itself.

So no, Nikki doesn't sit around reading Tristan and Isolde, or Arthur. Given her background, reading medieval poetry or even Malory isn't going to play. This is what I mean by swapping: Nikki, not Helen, reads the Victorians. She also reads Helen, of course—not always accurately, but with close attention and passion—and it's been suggested her appreciation of both amplifies her understanding of each.[6]

Speaking of Malory: how do we, in a modern time-frame, mainly come by our acquaintance with such stories? No one reads most of them in the original any more: they read or view them as adapted and interpreted... through the Victorians.[7] To the extent Nikki's narrative intersects the courtly love paradigm, it's through the Victorians: that's the historical locus where her character's story overlaps Helen's. As for Helen, she's not a careerist: she's a crusader. It's another call back to an ideological penchant both women share that stretches across both the medieval and Victorian eras—which is brought up to date with their very modern story and its struggles. They are literally situated in a location which spans all three time-frames: Larkhall, a medieval building that's been modernized to Victorian standards and houses a contemporary prison.

A final thought regarding narrative traditions being exchanged between these characters as suits the story: Nikki's tradition may have echoes in that of the gallant knight-gentil (in this case imprisoned for rescuing her lover from certain peril)... but she's also the princess stuck in the castle—who, in turn, needs rescuing. Which makes Helen, at least part of the time, the knight.[8] It's yet another level on which the flexibility and exchange of roles, the mutuality of Helen and Nikki's deeds on each other's behalf, makes the story work so well. That these characters achieve such fluidity in their roles—and are both women—is hardly incidental. Gender-swapping around roles doesn't happen easily in any culture where prescribed roles are more rigidly associated with opposite-sex pairings. This story doesn't just work brilliantly because it 'happens' to be about two women: it works to its very core because it's two women.

When I let go the idea that Helen and Nikki somehow 'had' to be contained within the same narrative tradition (nothing about their storylines or characters really suggests that in the first place) just because they shared the same narrative structure—and put it together with their constant frictions around how to effect change, what the right thing to do is in a given situation, the idea that they literally (as does everyone) use different languages to express themselves—it became clear another possibility existed: they weren't using the same language (or, to put it another way, they're speaking the same mother tongue, but with very different accents). As characters, they express themselves through (and originate in) different narrative traditions.


[1] A brief and rather inadequate summary of the Victorian novel's characteristics would include: a marked tendency towards realism; struggles with class; concern with duty, responsibility, self-in-the-(social) world, etc. It's stylistically dense, with lengthy descriptions of the minutae of social functions and exchanges; as well it's characterized by realism in its descriptions of individuals; a convention of clearly identifiable villains; and a finished ('closed') ending to the story. Its social and moral preoccupations are closely aligned to Helen's situation and struggles—and, to an extent, with the show's overall tone and preoccupations.

[2] Thanks to JG for that alternative.

[3] I nevertheless have a persistent suspicion if I were more familiar with medieval romance narratives there is some story out there, probably not among the major British ones but one of the short stories—not French but perhaps German—that would closely echo the major plot points in Nikki and Helen's relationship. I hope someone better-versed in them comes forward with an example if anything rings a bell.

[4] Thanks to campgrrls for this observation.

[5] Ross, Charles. The Custom of the Castle: From Malory to Macbeth Berkeley: Univ of California Press, 1997.
...Amid the welter of moral bewilderments that are given fantastic or marvelous form in chivalric romance (giants, dragons, sorcerers, love, illusions, and apparitions), one motif emerges as normative: the custom of the castle—in purely narrative terms, the moment when a knight comes upon a castle and confronts a ritual or tradition or institutional control presided over by some villain—which may be read as a meditation on the weight of custom or local practice in resolving problems of moral knowledge. Foul customs raise the problem of a knight's need to know what is morally correct before he can act in a way that is right. But, as Fredric Jameson remarks, the traditional heroes of Western romance "show a naiveté and bewilderment" that makes them marginal to the ethical conflicts that romances seek to resolve. Romance knights do not typically act in the moral sense; they react.

The conflict created by a "vile custom," then, is the specific form in which romance poses its problem of knowledge, providing a strong generic continuity from Chrétien to Malory and Shakespeare. The problem as it occurs in narrative terms is a variant of the same problem addressed by Socrates in the Gorgias and by Montaigne. First, in any human community, great weight must be given to custom and tradition in deciding matters of right and wrong, even when these may seem pointless on "rational" grounds. But second, to defer to the past is to admit the possibility that various kinds of behavior recognized to be wrong or repugnant by other canons of moral judgment (religion, reason, nature) may be sanctioned by the custom of some community.
[6] Thanks to JT for the idea of Nikki's reading tastes paralleling her feelings for Helen.

[7] I am also playing with the idea that the Victorians played with the idea of the gentil knight ("preux chevalier"). See Wodehouse, for example. (another author referenced indirectly in the show proper). 

[8] One of the most fitting and subtle reversals involving the characters' exchange of imagery comes as a deftly placed piece of set-dressing accenting a crucial scene: when Nikki escapes to Helen's and they go to bed together for the first time, the tapestry decorating the wall behind Helen's bed is medieval. It wasn't there in the first season, when she was living with Sean.


This page offers an extremely brief overview of the Victorian novel.

Equally brief summary of some differences between the Victorian & modern novel.

This website by Debora B. Schwartz offers an excellent general overview on courtly love, origins of the romance narrative, and Capellanus' 12th-century Rules of Courtly Love, satirizing the genre (excerpted below).

A shorter summary, recapping some of the same material but with a slightly different slant.

Excerpt below is from Capellanus' book, The Art of Courtly Love.

[NB: Remember: it's satire. The urge to apply it to the show (or one's own life) is nearly irresistible, regardless, as satire wouldn't work if it weren't in part truthful, to underscore Schwartz's point that "you can't satirize something that does not exist".]

De Arte Honeste Amandi [The Art of Courtly Love], Book Two: On the Rules of Love

1. Marriage is no real excuse for not loving.
2. He who is not jealous cannot love.
3. No one can be bound by a double love.
4. It is well known that love is always increasing or decreasing.
5. That which a lover takes against his will of his beloved has no relish.
6. Boys do not love until they arrive at the age of maturity.
7. When one lover dies, a widowhood of two years is required of the survivor.
8. No one should be deprived of love without the very best of reasons.
9. No one can love unless he is impelled by the persuasion of love.
10. Love is always a stranger in the home of avarice.
11. It is not proper to love any woman whom one should be ashamed to seek to marry.
12. A true lover does not desire to embrace in love anyone except his beloved.
13. When made public love rarely endures.
14. The easy attainment of love makes it of little value; difficulty of attainment makes it prized.
15. Every lover regularly turns pale in the presence of his beloved.
16. When a lover suddenly catches sight of his beloved his heart palpitates.
17. A new love puts to flight an old one.
18. Good character alone makes any man worthy of love.
19. If love diminishes, it quickly fails and rarely revives.
20. A man in love is always apprehensive.
21. Real jealousy always increases the feeling of love.
22. Jealousy, and therefore love, are increased when one suspects his beloved.
23. He whom the thought of love vexes, eats and sleeps very little.
24. Every act of a lover ends with in the thought of his beloved.
25. A true lover considers nothing good except what he thinks will please his beloved.
26. Love can deny nothing to love.
27. A lover can never have enough of the solaces of his beloved.
28. A slight presumption causes a lover to suspect his beloved.
29. A man who is vexed by too much passion usually does not love.
30. A true lover is constantly and without intermission possessed by the thought of his beloved.
31. Nothing forbids one woman being loved by two men or one man by two women.

Capellanus, Andreas. The Art of Courtly Love. Trans. & ed. by John Jay Parry, NY: Columbia Univ Press, 1989, p. 81.

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